Suzannah Sinclair grew up on an army base in northern New Jersey in a strict, religious family. Now she spends her days rescuing scantily clad, 70s-era Playboy beauties from their wank bank destinies by putting them in her translucent watercolor paintings on birch panel. Sinclair captures an untouchable, irresistible air of mystique in her models’ gaze. The sort of look you’d imagine someone like Hemingway heroine Lady Brett Ashley would use to elegantly balance being every man’s desired trophy wife while still completely slutting out.
Vice: Hi Suzannah. So what’s your obsession with painting naked and barely clothed girls?
Suzannah Sinclair: I’ve always been drawn to the female figure. As a kid I was a tomboy but really liked drawing pretty things like girls or animals. The first thing I ever drew was a princess with a cat—a kitty princess [laughs_]! After that I started drawing women from fashion-type magazines, but they didn’t have the realistic body type I was looking for. Then, when I was in art school about ten years ago I came across some old _Playboy magazines and realized that clothes quickly become dated. Without them the piece becomes more timeless and open to interpretation.
You must have a pretty big collection of porn rags by now, right?
I have loads! Mainly from the 60s and 70s--the vintage ones are the best, I’m not that into the newer stuff. I like to look for different girlie magazines when I travel. It’s funny asking for them at flea markets. I get strange looks.
I bet! Is it like buying tampons or condoms awkward?
Do you think that, as a woman, you have a different approach to painting nudes?
You could even say that, historically, painting is usually done by men. It’s like that Guerilla Girl poster, “Do women have to be naked to get into US museums? Less than three percent of artists in The Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83 percent of the nudes are female.” I do think I have something else to bring to the table painting the female body because, unlike male artists, I know what it feels like to be a woman.
You’re definitely capturing something sensual, yet strong in the girls’ expressions. You're making them emotional beings as well as sex objects. Is the “there’s more to me than tits” aspect of female sexiness something you deal with a lot in your art?
For sure! There is so much more to female sensuality than our bodies. I like finding the tricky balance between the sexual and the emotional and examining which of the two we are more comfortable with.
Have you come to any conclusions?
Well, it all started with me trying to understand why I was drawn to painting what I do. Most of the time the painting comes first and I question where it came from afterward. Showing my work around the States and Europe, I’ve been able to watch people at openings. It’s fascinating and has made me apply that question to others. Sometimes people see a painting at face value and react with a “she’s hot.” Sometimes they see more than that. I love it. One person will perceive sadness or loneliness, while another will see something totally different.
Like a hot ass. Do you have a favorite muse?
There are a couple of playmates I keep coming back to. They have a certain something that comes across through the pages—a look that says a lot. That’s what I search for when I go through magazines made for men, by men. Something I can connect to: a look or glance from a model that I project some kind of familiar feeling onto. It can be a look of anticipation or waiting for someone, a daydreamy feel, etc. I try to draw it out quite literally and figuratively. I feel like I paint an intersection of what I know and something that is beyond me, in my imagination.
Is emphasizing the model's gaze and emotion your way of making playmates more than sexual objects?
It’s possible. I’m trying to change the focus so they can be seen in a different light.
When did you first become interested in art?
My parents often took my sister and I into the city to go to Broadway shows and museums. I remember going to the MoMA one day and seeing some shocking artwork—things I was surprised we were even allowed to look at. I think that made me realize that you can get away with something provocative if you do it as a piece of art.
Did that trigger any subversive ideas?
Maybe subconsciously. I remember nostalgic things pretty intensely. I think I was 12 the day we went to the MoMA. I remember seeing an image of blood and a woman’s body, which was shocking because we were not allowed to see R rated movies or anything like that until we were 17!
Were your parents very strict?
I thought so as a kid, but now that I’m older I totally understand all the decisions they made in raising us and I’m glad for it. My folks encouraged my pursuit of art.
How do they feel about your nudie theme?
Well, they’re the ones who enrolled me in watercolor lessons when I was a teenager, which is the technique I still use today. They’re pretty religious and conservative with some things, but not with my art. They come to my shows whenever they can and collect all my press clippings. Whenever someone talks about it being too risqué or shocking I just think, “If I feel comfortable showing this to my dad, the Colonel, then what’s the problem?”
What’s next for you?
I’m just finishing up my next show opening on April 14 at Stene Projects in Stockholm.
Congratulations! I bet the show will be filled with loads of wide-eyed fellas.
To check out more of Suzannah’s work, click here.